The “Great God Debate” that ushered in the twenty-first century of our so-called Common Era brought atheism to the top of U.S. best-seller lists. This in itself i s historic: nothing quite like it has happened since the 1890s, when Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, and Jack London—world-class nonbelievers all—held mass audiences spellbound with their radical writing and oratory. Is atheism—like tourism in the jet age—getting ready to declare global dominion?
Nothing that spectacular, I fear, is yet on the agenda. Nonetheless, the debate may be crucial for us all, and, to understand its possible outcomes, we need to begin with the historical context. Over the past several centuries, religious disputation formed a normal part of everyday politics in Europe. In the United States, by contrast, religious disputes seldom reached the level of national politics and then only when faith itself seemed in jeopardy. The ongoing conflicts of religion and science that were triggered by the Enlightenment in Europe affected America only marginally at first, by way of anticlerical skeptics like Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. Yet from the Enlightenment emerged the age of secularism, linked on both shores of the North Atlantic to industrialization and urban growth and deeply enmeshed throughout the nineteenth century with disenchantment from belief. Thus, American radicals of the 1890s—Twain, Ingersoll, London, and the rest—could with some assurance celebrate what they took to be the triumph of secular rationalism.